Peter Hershock is the author of Buddhism in the Public Sphere, one of the most interesting books about public policy that I have ever read. The book presents a set of Buddhist perspectives on a series of political and policy challenges. Each chapter – which cover issues as varied as the environment and terrorism – is worth a read. The final chapter, which serves as the jumping-off point for this interview, is a tour de force of wide-ranging theory and fresh insight about the purposes and practices of contemporary education.
Hershock is an education specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu. In addition to Buddhism in the Public Sphere, he has written or co-edited many other books, including Educations and Their Purposes: A Conversation Among Cultures.
MATT BIEBER: In your view, much of contemporary education concerns itself with three goals: transmitting information and knowledge, imparting “circumstantially useful skills”, and forming young people through “principle-structured character development and socialization.” Many educational theorists would argue that this forms at least a partial list, if not a complete list, of appropriate educational goals. For you, however, this educational paradigm is deeply inappropriate and, in fact, in crisis. Why?
PETER HERSHOCK: Well, that’s a big question, and we’re going to need a lot of history to be able to respond. Here are some quick thoughts, and then we can do more background if need to.
One of the arguments that could be made about the contemporary world is that because of the kinds of complex interdependencies that have developed – economically, politically, socially, technologically, and so on –we no longer live in a world in which it’s possible to export the negative consequences of the actions that we undertake to pursue our own interests. So with industrialization, it used to be that we could just send our pollutants downstream and nobody would be any the wiser or troubled by it. We could downstream all the negative consequences of our actions. We’re now no longer able to export the negative effects of the kinds of industrial processes we have; we know that because of things like climate change. And we can’t export the developmental inequalities that are associated with particular patterns of economic development that have become globalized in the corporate world.
Whether it’s at the environmental or economic or political level, we know that we can’t effectively export these negative consequences any longer. The patterns of recursion are too dense; we have to deal with them.
Unfortunately, dealing with these consequences (both the good and the bad side of things) and deciding what’s worth working on and how to deal with negative consequences, is not something that we’re doing just within a society. Within a society, you could at least have the pretension of a shared set of values and principles according to which to make decisions, and you could reduce what you’re dealing with to problems.
MB: You argue that we’re not just facing problems – we’re facing something more.
PH: A problem consists in the occurrence of an event that makes you realize that you’re no longer going to be able to continue to pursue the aims and interests that you want to continue pursuing, based on current techniques and practices. You need some new techniques and new practices. You know where you want to end up; you’re just not sure how to get there. So you innovate, you solve problems. Problem-solution is finding a response to something that allows you to continue to pursue the same complexion of values and interests that you’ve had until now and that you want to maintain.
Because of the recursions that we’re experiencing that are affecting multiple communities, and affecting multiple levels within societies, we no longer have the unanimity of a single set of values according to which we can even decide what a solution to a so-called problem would be. If climate change was just a problem we should be able to deal with, we should be able to set the parameters for what would count as a solution; but that’s precisely what eludes us. You go to somewhere like Copenhagen and all these countries get together at the meeting, and you ask every individual representative, “Do you want a good, clean environment for your people?” “Yes.” Nobody says “no” in response to that question. When you start to ask, “Well, what do you mean by good, clean environment?” then the differences really start to come up. And if you say, “Well, what are you willing to pay for that? What are you willing to give up for that?” then you get an even wider range of views about what’s appropriate.
We live in a world of predicaments, not problems. Predicaments occur when something happens that makes you aware of the fact that there’s a conflict among your own aims and interests. You can’t solve a predicament. You can only resolve it, and doing so requires greater clarity and commitment (both of which are connotations of the word “resolution”). And if you’re doing that inter-culturally or between societies, if you’re doing that in an international arena, you can’t do that without an appreciation of cultural differences and uncommon assumptions about what a good life consists in. That takes a fairly sophisticated understanding and appreciation of others – not just as an embrace of pluralism and saying everybody’s got their own view, but saying, in fact, we need to somehow work through this to the point that we develop not just greater clarity about what we’re facing in a given situation, but to the point that we develop certain shared commitments. We don’t necessarily have to come to a single point of view on things, but we do need to get to the point that we can actually share in responding to the situation that we face together.
That requires a real shift from just knowledge about how things work and the skills that we’re accustomed to using when we innovate. It involves developing a capacity for ethical improvisation, and that’s something that’s not been part of the curriculum thus far.
MB: You’re not very impressed with knowledge generation and transmission as educational goals. You argue that given the nature of our contemporary economy – which you characterize as an “attention economy” – we should be focused on “shared meaning making” instead. Unpack these ideas for us.
PH: The “attention economy” idea has been developing relatively slowly – for me, surprisingly slowly – since this seems like a natural evolution from the kind of economic systems that we had, say, 200 years ago when industrialization started. It’s generally agreed that we’ve moved from a strongly material economy into the so-called “knowledge economy” or “information economy.” But if economics is deciding how to allocate scarce resources, it makes very little sense to talk about an information or knowledge economy. Information isn’t scarce; knowledge isn’t scarce. What is scarce is attention. The kind and quality of investment that people have, in terms of their consciousnesses—that’s really what we’re talking about. That’s what’s driving the global economy.
In 2007, the oil industry had a bumper year – $1.7 trillion globally. In the same year, media and entertainment was $1.6 trillion. If you asked the question: What kind of energy does the global economy run on? Is it really running on oil (or coal or what have you, some kind of material energy), which is what a lot of people would claim? Or is it running on the energy of the people that are invested both in production processes and in consumption? I would make the argument that it’s really the latter.
In 2008, human beings spent an estimated 40 billion hours over a two-week period watching the Olympics. What could people on the planet have done if they took those 40 billion hours and did something nice for somebody else?
The average person in the world spends 3.5 hours a day watching television, 3.5 hours a day average globally. What new languages could you learn? What musical instrument could you learn to play? What charitable acts could you engage in? What could you do for your parents or your grandparents, or children down the street, if you took the 3.5 hours a day that you spend on being entertained, through which your attention is exported into an environment where you get very little in response? Media entertainment doesn’t give you something you can use for the future; it’s not productive consumption.
We’re exporting attention out of our local environments into an economy where the benefits of the media and entertainment industries percolate up to the very top – so that the 1% that are getting the greatest benefit out of that and maybe the top 20% of the world’s population benefits from that kind of economic activity. What about the 80% from whom that energy is being exported?
If you look at it in thermodynamic terms, there’s this energy export from the family, from the local community, into the media sphere (if you want to call it that), which is the basic “fuel” of the attention economy. This massive export of energy increases entropy within the family, at the local level—a dissolution of the conditions in which our differences from each other are conducive to making a difference for one another. In other words, we’re seeing a dissolution of the possibilities of meaning making.
If that’s really what’s going on, how do we start to work against that? It has to do at least in part with being able to pull back and say, “I’m not getting the meaning-making part of what I need as a human being.” We’re not fully human if we’re not engaged in meaning-making processes. Basic subsistence for human beings involves meeting needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and emotional support or meaning making. If we’re not engaged with others in a way that we at least perceive as fruitful, the result of that is depression.
We know from World Health Organization statistics that depression is the number one cause of morbidity among women in the developed world and increasingly in the developing world. What does that mean? What does that mean that depression is one of the top causes of morbidity – that is, ill health, an inability to engage the environment around you? If you look at these statistics or the studies that have been done on depression, both with humans and with animals, the correlation is pretty clear. When you feel that you are making a contribution to others, that you can make a meaningful difference in your own life and in the lives of others, depression doesn’t occur. In animals, depression occurs – at least insofar as it is an observable behavioral phenomenon – when they’re no longer able to engage their environment in a meaningful way, when regardless of what they do, it doesn’t affect getting their food or some reward. When there’s a disconnect between what you’re doing with your time and attention, and the results you’re getting – the patterns of outcome and opportunity that are coming your way—conditions are ripe for depression, or anger.
In that sense, I think meaning making is really crucial to addressing a lot of issues that are connected with the attention economy. If we’re not able to take on meaning making ourselves and instead “offshore” it to globally produced mass media or to smaller scale media that you might find on YouTube or some other so-called “user-contributed medium” – if we’re not really doing it ourselves, not taking the time to create the meaningful connections ourselves, then I think we’re losing something basic about what it means to contribute to one another’s lives in a productive way, to really have a sense of family or community that is robust enough to allow us to move forward productively together.
Those things are all connected together, and without the kind of attention training that goes along with being able to engage one another meaningfully, we’re just not going to be able to resolve the kinds of predicaments that we face in the world today. We’re not going to be good enough citizens to do it; we won’t be good enough politicians to do it.
MB: Let’s focus on training and education for a moment. You’ve contrasted education that focuses on developing improvisational, responsive, appreciative, attentive capacities with another kind of education, one that falls prey to what you call “competence traps.” What is a competence trap?
PH: The competence trap is that you’ve got some end result that you know you want to get to. You’ve already predefined that, so it’s problem-solution. You know what’s going to count as a solution. And once you predefine your educational goals, you can certainly train or discipline students to arrive at them.
But we live in a world of increasing unpredictability. One of the outcomes of having more complex patterns of interdependence is that complex systems are prone to behave in ways that are in principle unpredictable, un-anticipatable, but which after the fact make perfectly good sense. In a complex world, it’s very difficult to determine what competencies will be required down the line in order to be able to respond to the future needs of, say, the market or society.
The education system is saying, “We’re trying to prepare students to be competent to work in the markets as we now know them, to enter the labor force” and such. It’s a typical claim made on behalf of mass education. “We’re preparing this generation to enter the work force, to be competent in some way, even if it’s to be competent as citizens.”
We’re defining that in terms of our present understanding of what is needed. Unfortunately, the half-life of scientific knowledge changes is about 18 months – that’s the speed at which the cutting edge of scientific knowledge dulls. And if it’s knowledge in the stock market, that half-life is about 18 seconds. If you don’t act on a tip in 18 seconds, you’re behind the curve.
If we live in a world where there’s that kind of time-space compression, plus unpredictability, the idea that you predefine a set of educational goals for students to achieve, and see that as productive and successful education – well, I think it’s really shortsighted. What we need instead, I think, is skills that enable us to enter situations with the kinds of attentive capacity and responsive capability needed to improvise.
Innovation and problem solving aren’t really what we need right now. I mean, yeah, we need a bit of that in the everyday world, solving problems; but to face the bigger issues and to develop a workforce that’s responsive to a very rapidly and unpredictably changing set of contexts, then we need improvisational ability.
And we can train people to improvise. We can train them through concrete stuff, like musical improvisation, from which one can then generalize. But improvising is something we all do; we do it in just speaking. I mean, it’s what we’re doing in this interview; you’ve got some scripted sentences that you’re reading out to me, and maybe when we go down the line, you start to ask questions that aren’t scripted. But I’m speaking off the top of my head, and sure, maybe using some phrases that I’ve used in the past, but I’m not them putting together in a way that I planned out at all because I didn’t know the questions you were going to ask. This is improvisational, and I’m trying to figure out: What’s gonna be meaningful for you? How am I going to make sense to you? Am I doing a good job of it? Maybe not so good right now! But we’ll keep working at it and see whether or not the conversation starts to take off.
That kind of ability, that ability to improvise with others is what we need to promote in working with students – shaping education in ways that are going to be productively aligned with developing capacities for and commitments to improvising. Because improvising isn’t easy; there’s a lot of risk involved in it. You don’t know where it’s going to go. You don’t even know what the measures of success are going to be. The measures of what’s qualitatively good and what’s worth continuing are the things that emerge out of the situation that you find yourself in.
MB: Is there a tension between the kind of improvisation that you’re advocating here and the fact that all of this improvisational work is, after all, in the name of something?
PH: One thing that’s really crucial to many Buddhist traditions is a skepticism about the possibility of establishing a means-end relationship between practices and attainments. This skepticism applies regardless of what you’re engaged in, whether it’s meditation or ritual activities associated with practicing Buddhism, as well as to the so-called goal of the alleviation of conflict, trouble, suffering, whatever you want to call that. A lot of Buddhist traditions are really sensitive to the fact that if you set up a means-end relationship – a goal to end suffering, nirvana, or whatever you want to call that – then the real difficulty is that you, at least mentally and at a certain level emotionally, feel like, “Well, if I’m going to achieve that goal, it only makes sense that I’m going to go partway first – that there’s some distance I need to traverse to get there.”
You’ve objectified the goal. You’re not exemplifying it. You’re just looking at it from a distance, knowing that you’re not there yet. And you get this kind of Zeno’s paradox of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development. You feel like you’ve got to go halfway before you can go all the way, and before that, you’ve got to go halfway of that, and then most people are like, “Well, shit, I might as well just stop now, because I’ll never get there.” It starts to feel like an infinite task.
So, from a Buddhist perspective, what is usually said is, “Drop the idea of there being a destination at all. You’re not working for a goal. We’re not trying to get somewhere with this. There’s not a destination at which we’re aiming to arrive. The point is just to establish a certain direction and quality of action.” It’s orientation as opposed to goal.
I think that’s an important distinction. The root of the word “curriculum” on which all of our formal educational systems are now based, the root meaning of the term is a circular racetrack for chariots. So the idea is you have a starting point and a stopping point, a defined racetrack that you go around. In the 16th century, Peter Ramus was the first person to apply the word “curriculum” to educational processes, and since then we’ve bought into the idea. It’s a powerful idea that you can methodize instruction so that if you want to arrive at a certain level of competence—again we go back to that—in a given knowledge or skill domain, you can define how to arrive at that particular goal, and you can establish a timeframe for getting there. It will take you a year; it will take you three years; it will take you seven years to get your Ph.D. and then you’ll be there.
That’s certainly one way to do education. The problem is that the world we live in requires us, I think, to respond without establishing those kinds of goals, because the contexts in which we’re acting are changing so much that the idea of a fixed goal is now no more plausible in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish than it is to say, “We already know what the market is going to need in terms of the job force, so we can train a generation of young people to get out of university in four years and be ready to go to the job market. They’ll have the skills and the knowledge that the market wants.”
We now know that we can’t do that. If you ask people in higher education if they really think they’re preparing people for the job, they’ll say, “Yeah, maybe in a very, very generic way, giving them some very basic skills, but as to what they’re going to actually need on the job, that’s going to come from on-the-job training. The market changes too fast, so we can’t really give them that. We can just give them really basic skills.” It’s sort of like—I’m not even going to bother to teach you how to play football or basketball or baseball or soccer. I’m going to get you running so that you’re basically in shape, and you can run for a certain amount of time, you’re working at your maximum speed, you’ve got some strength and some flexibility – it’s basic training.
We could do that in education and have certain training goals – that everybody ought to be able to do certain things with math and language, for example. There’s nothing wrong with establishing those as benchmarks for a certain kind of training. If you’re going to meditate, you should be able to sit still for 30 minutes at least and not have to get up and fidget, and yes, that’s a goal you can work to achieve. But what we’re trying to accomplish isn’t arriving at that. It’s not being able to sit for 30 minutes. It’s not being able to run a mile in less than six minutes and do a hundred pushups or something.
What we need is a responsive capability that’s partly attention, that’s partly physical skill, that’s partly emotional demeanor, that’s partly intellectual capacity—we need to pull all those together. That’s why I resist the idea of goals. It’s really about establishing a direction as primary, as opposed to goals as primary.
MB: When you think about the contemporary American educational scene, are there any institutions or individuals that you think are carrying this off effectively?
PH: I think that the place that you find people doing this sort of stuff is at preschool and elementary levels. You’ve got a lot of people who are working out of Montessori theories or other theories about early childhood development that try not to impose a rigid structure on children. Take, for example, what we know about brain research. You can try force-feeding the average population of children mathematics until age 10 or 11, and there’ll be a spectrum of competency that will result across the population. Or you can wait until they’re 10 years old and give it all at once to them at that point, and what you discover is that with a lot less emotional anguish and a lot less difficulty, students in one year, from age 10 to age 11, can acquire all the mathematical knowledge that you would have been forcing down them for five years, from kindergarten through grade five. It’s possible to do it all in one year. Then the question is, “Well, what else will you do with those four years?” If you’re not going to do math, is it another language? Is it music? Is it cultural phenomena? Is it acting? Is it knowledge-building stuff? Is it exploratory? Is it science? Do you have them do experiments?
Of course, this is partly a function of how the brain develops. There are children who are really ready for math when they’re two or three years old – they’re just biologically, biomechanically set up for it. Other kids, their brains are simply not ready until they’re 10 or 11 years old, and if you force it down them when they’re two or three or four or five or six or eight years old and they’re not getting it and they have a sense of failure from not being able to get something and they’re called “stupid” and they’re told that they’re not progressing and they’re put in a special class for kids that are remedial, which kids internalize to mean that they’re somebody who needs remediation – you can imagine where that goes.
I think that you do find some schools that are doing that at pre-K and elementary. It’s certainly not the norm.
I think that the University of California Irvine campus started without departments, as an interdisciplinary research project-oriented school. That changed over the years. So there’ve been some experiments like that at the higher education level.
There was a project that I was involved in that was coming out of Berkeley for a while, where they were trying to reframe the engineering curriculum, so that the students would be required to take courses that would introduce them to the religious and philosophical systems of the world. If they were going to work in Asia, they would have an introduction to the culture of the peoples of Asia – so that the parameters that they would be taking into account in their engineering work would not be just material stresses, cost factors and so on, but the kinds of cultural considerations needed to be truly successful. How do we do urban design in a way that meets with the needs and value systems of the particular people that we’re going to be working with?
Great idea, wonderful stuff, they had money from the National Science Foundation to fund a series of workshops and so on, and the alumni of the Berkeley engineering school said, “No way! We want these students to be trained the way we were trained. We want the students to be able to do exactly the kind of things that we know you should be able to do when you graduate with your degree in engineering from Berkeley. All this other stuff is extraneous. We don’t need that; we don’t want it. If you’re going to change that, we’re not going to make donations.” So it’s a leveraging of higher education by the business community and the engineering profession. They were basically saying, “We like things the way they are. We like the controls of it. There’s an unpredictability that emerges if you change education and have an open-ended structure where it’s direction-biased rather than goal-biased.”
It’s really hard. I don’t know of systems where they embrace this, and I think that it’s this generation that’s going to decide whether or not we’re going to move in that direction, whether we’re going to break free of a curricular approach and say, “Maybe there was something to the studio model of education that prevailed prior to the 16th century and that we need to go back and look at more closely.”
In the studio model, you apprentice to somebody, and there’s no term length for your apprenticeship. You get into it and you go until you become a master. Does it take 10 years or 15 years or 20 years? Or maybe you never complete it and you leave and you do something else. It was open-ended, non-formalized learning; it wasn’t regulated. It was a very different approach.
In the US, we do have the idea of community colleges as being places that you can go back and retool yourself, go back for further education. And if you look at higher education in the US, the average age, I think, is 27 or 28. By contrast, the average across Asia is 20 years old – your typical college or university student. That’s significant, and I think there’s something positive in what US higher education has done in terms of opening up non-tracked educational opportunities for people. But the courses themselves are still designed as curriculum. They’re still designed to leverage a specific amount of content in a specific amount of time with specific outcomes and so on. It’s goals.
MB: You acknowledge that your ambitions are lofty. You also acknowledge that in order for policymakers to begin to pursue these kinds of changes, they must cultivate the ways of thinking that you’ve described. In particular, they must begin to cultivate a greater awareness of our interdependence.
Is there any way to accelerate the cultivation of these sorts of mentalities among educators and policymakers? Or must we simply rely on pursuing changes in ourselves, and trusting that as we change ourselves, we change the world as well? Your work on faculty development programs certainly suggests the latter.
PH: There is definitely the possibility of moving forward with them. It’s about accelerating the processes of change so as to direct them in the ways we’re talking about. You take certain values and start running with them really strongly at the policy level.
So to just take the one term that I return to over and over in my recent work – diversity. We talk a lot about diversity in education, not just in the US but everywhere in the world now. What most people mean by it is really just the co-existence of different kinds of things in the same place. So if you can get students from Africa and Europe and Asia and the US together in a classroom, we talk about there being diversity in a classroom.
We also talk about the campus as having a certain amount of cognitive diversity if you’ve got humanities being taught, as well as social sciences and the natural sciences and so on. We don’t split those up and say, “You can only take courses in the hard sciences.” We want students to be well-rounded.
But you can also take the term “diversity” and push it harder, as I try to do, and say that we haven’t given that term enough conceptual depth and let’s tweak it a little bit. To me, diversity consists of the activation of differences as the basis of mutual contribution to sustainably shared flourishing. If we look at it like that, it’s no longer simply a matter of co-existence; now it’s a particular quality of interdependence. We’re talking about a particular kind of sharing that’s going on, a shift of relational dynamics; it’s not just simply being in the same place together.
You can impose variety, and we impose academic variety by saying, “Students have to take a minimum number of courses in humanities, a minimum number of courses in this and so on and so forth, in order to get their distribution requirements.” You can mandate that. What you can’t mandate is cultural and cognitive diversity, where you’re able to work from different points of view on a given issue or predicament, and have the differences of cognitive style and ability contribute meaningfully in responding to and resolving that predicament or that issue.
If you’re talking about problem-solution, you don’t need cognitive or cultural diversity. You just have the appropriate expert come in and do the job and that’s it. (I’ll give you a concrete example and make this a little clearer in a second.) But sometimes you need people to work together on something that’s not just a problem, but rather a predicament where you’ve got a conflict that is really about values and interests. Statistically it has been proven—and you can read Scott Page’s book on diversity; he cites lots of studies on this—that cognitively diverse groups outperform single expertise groups in what I’m referring to as “predicament resolution.”
So, I’ll give you an example of how that works. There’s a farming community in northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they were bringing in pesticides and fertilizers and so on. The fertilizers were going down through the soil into the groundwater, the groundwater is being pulled up by wells, and wells are being used for the fields and for human consumption. People are getting sick because the groundwater has been contaminated from all the fertilizer which has made it a perfect medium for growing any and all kinds of bacteria.
So, they got some engineers to come in and say, “Well, what can we do with this?” They look at it and they go, “Well, if you’re not going to stop using these fertilizers, then there’s nothing you can do about it. You simply have to ship water in. You could try to stop using these chemicals it will take X amount of time for the groundwater to clear out naturally and clean up, but we’re a little uncertain whether it’s going to work, and you might have to do other stuff to deal with it.” The government decided that the most appropriate thing was to ship drinking water in and entertain the possibility of building an industrial-scale water purification plant, if they got enough international money to be able to fund the project.
Another group sent in a scientist named Susan Murcott who I think incidentally had an interest in Buddhism. So she comes in and consults with a team of people, including geologists, anthropologists, geographers, environmental studies experts, and so on. She said, “Let’s look at the local situation and see what we can do and how we can respond.” It turned out that one of the jobs of the women in the area was to carry water from the well back to the families for daily use. When the government started shipping the water into the area as a stop-gap measure, the women were no longer able to carry these big five-gallon purified water containers back up the hills to their homes. They had to get their husbands to do it. Since the husbands had to do the woman’s work, they’re getting a little unhappy with having to do both their work and woman’s work. You start to get cases of domestic abuse; you’ve got women being beaten by their husbands who feel like they shouldn’t have to do the woman’s work.
This starts to come out as Susan’s team digs into the ethnography of what’s going on. The team is seeing a range of problems: the women are no longer going to the well, which means they don’t share information, they don’t know who’s sick, who’s not sick, how they can help one another out; the community was starting to break down, all because of the removal of the use of the well.
So the team did some research. They got the geologists together, they got the engineers together, and they came up with a very, very simple water purification system that the women could make by gathering locally available materials. This allows the women to purify the water at their homes, having drawn water from the well and carried it up to their homes. It led to a change of status for the women, who now were able to do something the men couldn’t do. This leads to higher status for the women, domestic violence stops, and women can still go to the well and have the social interaction that’s part of the village life. It’s a resolution to the predicament.
Now, you could have solved the problem with the water purification plant, and potentially that wouldn’t have led to the unintended consequences of domestic violence. Unfortunately, shipping in the five-gallon containers of purified water did. Nobody planned on that, but because of a really complex set of cultural and biological factors, that’s what happened.
This cognitively diverse group was able to respond to that. It’s a simple, concrete case in which cognitive diversity was able to mount a really different kind of response that took into account what you might think of as the full spectrum of considerations, from the social and economic to the cultural.
Imagine if we had schools that were not organized around different bodies of knowledge – physics and history and philosophy and religion and literature and so on – but rather as environments within which it’s possible to realize ecologies of knowledge, in which the different disciplines don’t disappear but the relationship between them is consciously massaged, set up, conditioned in such a way that there’s the potential for the emergence of cognitive diversity, where the differences between the disciplines become the basis of sustainable and shared contribution to the flourishing of a community as a whole.
So that’s the aspiration, that’s the direction – and I think that there are ways in which we can do that. We can have projects, like this project on water, in which students would be encouraged to say, “Let’s work on it collectively. You guys are going to specialize at this part of the project, you’ll do the research on that part, I’m going to do this, and then we’re going to come together as a team and see whether or not our different perspectives can be informed by what everyone else is bringing to bear.” With the idea that “We’re dedicated to pulling that off.” It’s not “Let’s choose the best response out of the four of five responses on offer.” Instead, it’s “Let’s see whether there’s a sixth response, something different from what anyone or any individual team has brought to this, something that really shows this diversity coefficient taking off.”
That’s the challenge. The real difficulty as a policy matter is that you can impose variety—cognitive, cultural, etc.—but you can’t impose diversity. It’s a relational achievement. It’s something that happens, if you’re really lucky, because people have committed to making an effort to contributing and sharing in a certain way, with a certain kind of openness and a readiness to improvise. You can’t make people do that.
It’s a little bit like the conundrum we face with issues of equity. We can force educational institutions to offer access universally. What you can’t do is mandate respect – and we know that. You have to somehow elicit that; it has to be drawn out of the situation. Diversity is like that – it’s something like respect; it’s a relational quality. It’s not a given and you can’t impose it. You can’t legislate it.
That makes it hard to directly endorse in the political process because of so-called accountability issues. Can you be accountable if you’re striving for diversity in education? You know ahead of time that you can’t force it to happen. It’s not a controlled event. It’s like a fantastic performance, when the musicians come together, improvising, and it all just clicks – and everybody knows it. Whether you’re a player or you’re a member of the audience listening, things just take off. You’re drawn up into it; you’re part of it. It’s exciting, it’s gratifying, it’s cathartic – it’s all the wonderful things that art can be. We know what it is, but you can’t force it to happen.
Again, it’s that difference from a directional approach to a goal-oriented approach. Diversity isn’t a goal; it’s a direction in which we’re working.
MB: The conceptual distinctions you’re making here actually remind me of another one you’ve challenged – the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Let’s talk about that distinction, and why you think it deserves challenge.
PH: Well, I want to recognize the combination of factors that came along with modernization, which includes a certain level of separation of church and state (for very good reasons). This is a period in which knowledge was divided up. Some things are public and repeatable, and science took a lead in those areas. I mean, a scientific method was developing for a long time, but modernity picked up that idea of repeatedly demonstrable, universalizable knowledge and really ran with it, and education came to be about that kind of knowledge – knowledge that you could duplicate. It’s knowledge about things and it’s knowledge about how to do things: knowing that something is the case and knowing how to do something. Simply stated: knowing-that and knowing-how.
By contrast, knowing whether to do something was left to the family or the church or the private sphere. Government wasn’t going to get involved in that. At that time, Europe had just come out of the Thirty Years’ War. You had eight million people killed over a 30-year period; it was pretty horrendous interreligious warfare (or religiously stimulated and abetted warfare). There were really good reasons to say, “Let’s leave those kinds of values that are informing decision-making in the private sphere, and publicly let’s deal with this other stuff.”
Unfortunately for this model, the world that we live in today requires us to know whether to respond in certain ways. It’s not just how to respond. It’s whether to take a specific course of action or not. This involves value judgments or predicament resolution.
We talk a little bit about ethics in school; it’s a minor part. It’s a discipline within philosophy and some people are exposed to it. Or if you do journalism or you’re in medicine, you may have to take a course in medical ethics or journalistic ethics. But those tend to be behavioral codes: what you should or shouldn’t do if you’re a doctor, what you should or shouldn’t do if you’re a journalist.
Those kinds of professional ethics don’t really take us to the heart of what we need to deal with, and that is, when you have a conflict of values, it’s not a choice between a good thing and a bad thing. There’s really not a choice there. We don’t make choices between good things and bad things; we do the good thing. Nobody chooses the bad thing – if you know it’s going to have bad consequences.
The real question is, how do you choose between conflicting good things? That’s where the difficulty is – whether we should do this or that, because we obviously can’t pull off both. And which is the more important way to go? Not that everything in life is sorted out as an “either/or,” but we face a lot of that. We can get economic growth or we can deal with climate issues. We can continue to grow industrially and force consumption and get the Chinese to do more consumption, get other Asians to do more consumption, get Africa on board with consumption, and we can keep the consumption-based industrial economy going for at least another few decades, with high growth overall globally, and higher pockets in some areas than others. But what are the consequences to that? Are we really going to be able to deal with the environmental consequences, and to whom are these consequences being exported?
It’s questions not just about what are the goods (including the public goods) that we’re going to produce, but also – what do you do with the public bads? What do you do with the pollution? What do you do with the requirement in any consumption-based society that you’re going to have income gaps (if it’s a capitalist system), between people who are in low-level service industries—store clerks, cleaners, all those people, big numbers—and the elites who are designing stuff. There’re going to be bigger and bigger gaps; that’s what we’ve been seeing over the last 25-30 years with the shift from the material economy to the information economy. As we go to the attention economy, it’s going to get even more exacerbated.
What do we do about that? That’s not just an economic issue; it’s an issue about social justice and developmental justice. Some people would say, “Leave the justice to itself – that’s for the philosophers to worry about, or maybe the politicians who need to get elected.” But it’s not an economic issue. That’s the bodies-of-knowledge approach, in which economists think they only need to talk to each other.
MB: I just finished a degree at a public policy school, and your distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing whether” is really useful for thinking about my experience. The school seemed to place most of its emphasis on inculcating a knowing how, capabilities-heavy approach, but didn’t encourage much inquiry into “why” or “whether”.
That said, I can imagine that a skeptic might ask about your criteria: how do you know which situations are worthy of response?
PH: I resist unilateral phrasings or prescriptions about how we ought to move forward. When I think about my admittedly limited knowledge of history—philosophers don’t tend to read that much history, because it tends to constrain your freedom of vision!—I can’t think of any instance in which there’s been a single perspective vision of the future that has done anything other than tremendous damage. It’s never worked out to be a good thing.
MB: But you are interested in encouraging things like “flourishing” and “diversity”…
PH: I think that we can pick out a term like “diversity” and say, this is a value; so are other things like “equity.” Flourishing is a relational quality that we can talk about. Whether we want to push that enough to label it as a value in the way I use the word – I’d have to think about it. But we can pick stuff like that out and say, “These are qualifiers of how well we’re moving forward.”
But the Buddhist perspective has always been one of, take the situation as it’s come to be and begin moving out from within it in a way that leads to the resolution of trouble/suffering/conflict, or to greater flourishing, or to increased diversity and equity – we can pick which values we want to endorse. What these values or ideals specify for us is not a given destination. Values don’t point to a particular place that you’re going to arrive at and then you’re done.
I’m using “values” to point to different modalities of appreciation, where appreciation means two different things. It means both a sympathetic engagement with something, as when you appreciate music. It’s also what happens when you invest and your money appreciates in value. Appreciation is an increase of value as well as a sympathetic engagement.
We can establish different values according to which we can say, “Okay, we live in a situation. Here’s how it’s come to be. These are the kinds of trouble, difficulty, suffering, and conflict that currently exist. We can see that there is a particular pattern of conditions that led to this – there’re some historical dynamics. We’ve got some moving picture of how they came to be way they are.
Given that, we can work with the energy that’s present. Things are already changing. We can take the energy or the change processes already underway and begin redirecting them, for example, in accordance with the values of greater equity and diversity (which is how I would cast out the notion of flourishing).
Not doing that is saying, “I’ve got a model of the world the way it ought to be, a good world as opposed to the bad one that we’ve got. Here’s the utopia that I think we ought to arrive at. We’re going to set it up as a goal and do our best to arrive there.” That’s not a Buddhist approach.
A generally Buddhist approach says, “Let’s distinguish what’s kusala and what’s akusala.”
Kusala sometimes gets translated as wholesome or good; akusala gets translated as the opposite of that – unwholesome or not good. But the term kusala is actually a superlative. It doesn’t mean doing something good or doing something well; it means doing something superlatively. It’s the virtuosic.
And that’s helps show what I mean by this notion of a value as a modality of appreciation – what’s kusala in a given situation? It’s not just what’s good; we’ve already got good things going on. Capitalism is a good system. Democracy is a good system. There are some bad systems out there too, and, let’s admit it, there are some bad things that happen because of capitalism. But that’s all akusala. The good and the bad are both akusala. They are not virtuosic. What we’re looking for is the virtuosic, something that opens up the kind of relational dynamics that are playing out in a way that’s not just different from what has happened thus far, but significantly different, in which there’s a meaning-consolidating dimension to what we’re doing that pulls things together in a way that they haven’t been pulled together before, that opens up prospects for continuing to work forward together.
That’s a key distinction here. We’re not talking about the good-evil approach that dichotomizes – “We want a good world, not a bad world. We have a good political system, they have a bad one.” According to the kusala-akusala approach, we are all involved in looking for virtuosic ways of working out from within our situations, as they have come to be, striving for the virtuosic.
When you start thinking in terms of the virtuosic, you begin committing yourself to stop playing everything in life as a finite game and instead playing infinite games. As James Carse put it in a wonderfully succinct way: finite games are played to win; infinite games are played to make the game more and more interesting to everyone involved.
We play politics as a finite game, because we’ve got electoral cycles. Of course, you can talk about the future. But everybody’s going from electoral cycle to electoral cycle and it’s getting this legislation through and that legislation through. It’s all about very, very definite goals that you’re trying to achieve.
What would it mean to play politics as an infinite game? Not in order to win and therefore make sure that somebody else loses, but to be able to play the game in such a way that it becomes increasingly interesting and meaningful—a process of shared creativity. That’s the kusala approach.
How do we make politics more interesting? I think you can just look at voting statistics in the US. Only half the people of voting age actually vote. If only half the people are participating, it’s because they’ve decided that the finite game that’s being played politically isn’t worth playing. You don’t have a chance to win. What would it mean to get these people on board and have them become true participants in the democratic process?
MB: Toward the end of the book, you make a case that the kind of education you envision works best in a one-on-one setting – in the context of deep and meaningful personal relationships between teacher and student. You write, “Educating for virtuosity cannot be undertaken generically or with standardized or standardizing methodologies.” Is this a Dewey-esque reminder that education has to stay responsive to local needs and conditions, or are you suggesting something more – that mass education might not permit the development of these kinds of relationships?
While we’re at it, I’ll ask the same question with regard to politics. Do you genuinely think that the kinds of deep, dense, rich relationships that would make for the kind of politics you’re describing are possible in a mass society – in which people don’t know each other, live thousands of miles apart, communicate via digital media, and so forth? Is the politics you describe actually possible in a society that’s this big and distributed?
PH: I think scalability issues are important ones, and I don’t pretend to have answers about how to scale some phenomenon up from a local level that might involve a few hundred people to a level that would involve a few hundred million. And pulling off that scaling exercise would take a very cognitively diverse group to achieve. But all of this might be a lot more conservative than you might think. Let’s take the analogy of a practicing Buddhist community. (You might be able to pull this off with other kinds of communities, but I know the Buddhist communities better in this way.)
In a Buddhist community, you can have a transformation of community interactions, practices, and relational dynamics based on a powerful intimacy between leader and community. In Buddhism, this often takes the shape of the Buddhist teacher or the master establishing a certain relationship not with the group as a whole; it’s not a “teacher-to-mass” relationship, but a “teacher-to-individual-student” relationship that has very, very different qualities.
Within Buddhist communities, the older students who’ve been around for 20 years almost invariably have more access to the master than students who are just showing up for the first time. There are public engagements where anybody’s present, and then there might be private situations where masters and students interact with one another in a much more intimate setting, and the kinds of interaction that go on are very different in those contexts. But the community as a whole ends up getting informed by something that’s consistent across those different scales of intimacy. Somehow, across those scales and everything that takes place in between those extremes, the quality of relational dynamics occurring can still be called intimate.
I think that it’s possible to aspire to something like that in the political sphere. There’s a level at which we know it when we talk about politicians having a certain “gravitas” or “charisma”; these are terms that we use to try to get at relational qualities. Some people talk about it as “inspirational”. But it’s got to be based on more than inspiration. I mean, sure, you can inspire people with rhetorical brilliance; a great actor can inspire people without being able to carry through and actually demonstrate and realize the kind of caring relationships that we’re talking about in, say, the Buddhist context.
If you scale it out to 300 million, or 1.3 billion like you have in China, it’s a real question as to whether or not any leader could have anything remotely like an intimate connection with every citizen. But I think that it is possible.
We know the importance of leaders in different contexts. In the educational sphere, you hear it over and over. If you ask, “What is the single common factor in public education that makes a difference in creating a functional and high-achieving school, one that’s moving smoothly and that doesn’t have issues socially, doesn’t have employment issues with the faculty, the students are happy, the parents are happy, everything seems to be working really well and achievements are good on whatever measures are being used?” The one thing that’s in common across the board is a really good leader, a really good principal.
You wonder what that’s about. Because the principal is not going in the classrooms and telling people how to teach and they’re not going out there and telling students how to study or parents how to deal with their kids. But they somehow set a tone. It’s something about a difficult-to-define, difficult-to-objectify quality of relationship that these principals establish, and that everybody gets on board with and begins contributing to.
I think it is possible to do that, and it means moving away from a more technocratic, bureaucratic approach to dealing with issues of administration. That will be the secret to things scaling up. It is possible to do it at a smaller scale, like a school. But if you can do it in a school, why not the school district? If you can do it in a school district, why can’t you do it in a political district? – and on upward like that. It certainly seems possible to me, though I’m not in a position to predetermine the details.
MB: It’s interesting how infrequently Buddhism has come up in this conversation. In Buddhism in the Public Sphere, most of your policy-specific arguments seemed rooted in Buddhist ontologies and epistemologies.
I had planned to ask you whether you thought this whole vision of education and moral formation was transferable outside the Buddhist context – whether it was possible to advocate for it or persuade others of its usefulness without explicitly rooting it in Buddhist origins. It certainly sounds like you’re working toward doing so, and that you’ve found a language in which to talk about all of this that doesn’t really depend on Buddhism. Is that right?
PH: I think that whenever Buddhism is spread into a new cultural sphere, it has always had to do some accommodation with the local culture. Then it can move into a phase of advocacy where it says, “You guys are doing all this great stuff, but it seems like these are problems that persist, and Buddhist practices can help you respond to those things that persist.” So Buddhism doesn’t come in and say, “You need to redesign your system.” The Buddha never recommended a regime change. He never said, “You gotta switch to a democratic polity if you’re a monarchy,” or “You need to shift from this economic system to another one.”
It’s the development of what I call different “ecologies of enlightenment,” where you get particular kinds of practices that are being brought together because they’re responsive to the needs of that particular community. And some of that’s conceptual.
Given the very limited understanding and limited practice that I’ve developed in my short time on earth, I think part of what I’m trying to do is to make a contribution to developing a vocabulary through which Buddhist perspectives—if we still want to call them that – or critically engaged perspectives on interdependence and relational quality can become a shared focus for moving forward in a way that’s generally useful. I agree entirely with that part of your statement. We can draw from Buddhist traditions, or other traditions, constellating values according to which we can start to see new ways of concretely moving forward with virtuosity. My rendering of the notion of diversity comes out of Buddhist concepts of non-duality. But I actually don’t have to tell anybody that. I can express what the value of diversity is and describe it, contrasting it with variety in a way that’s intelligible, without having to bring any other “Buddhist” stuff in.
But in order to be able to get people to actually begin doing the work of relating to one another as needed to enhance diversity and equity in the ways that I defined those values, we need some abilities, capacities, and commitments that we might not be able to find within other existing traditions. So, for example, all the stuff within Buddhism that is most connected with issues of changing relational dynamics goes back to teachings about karma. The teachings of karma, as I would describe it from a Buddhist perspective (a Hindu perspective might be different), would be: “If you pay close and sustained enough attention, you’ll see that there’s a meticulous correlation between the abiding patterns of your own values, intentions, actions, and institutions, and the patterns of outcome and opportunity that you’re experiencing, personally and communally.”
The key to that is “if you pay close and sustained enough attention.” Usually everybody goes, “Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah, I get that. I understand the words.” But to be able to have the experience of observing karma in action, you have to pay close and sustained enough attention. So how do you that?
We ask our kids to do it all the time. I’ve got two sons and I’ve asked them to pay attention innumerable times. I can tell you quite honestly, it doesn’t work. I don’t know why I’ve persisted as many times as I have! You can’t tell someone to pay attention and expect them to do it because attending, as the word put in that verbal form suggests, isn’t just observing. Most people think paying attention just means “have a look, listen, and let it enter your consciousness.” That’s not really what the Buddhist injunction is focusing on.
Paying close and sustained enough attention is really more like the English word “attending,” from which we get attendant. What does it mean to be somebody’s attendant? What does it mean if you’re attending the situation? It’s not just showing up and saying, “I attended the concert.” If you’re really attending something, then you’re caring for it. You’re doing something that requires an emotional, relational connection that goes beyond the objective and observational. You’re invested; it’s the opening up of an intimate connection between you and that situation, so that now the situation and you are internally related, not just externally related.
That requires practice. It’s not something that you just turn on like a switch and it happens. For that, Buddhist practices have been developed in different cultural settings and different time periods, to work with people who are already predisposed in certain emotional, cognitive, and physical ways. So there’s a whole set of resources there in terms of practices that could be made use of, that might not be found in other traditions. On that level, maybe there’s something distinctive that Buddhism has to offer because of this attentional—I hate to use this word—technology. Attention training is a kind of technology that’s central to the Buddhist traditions but not to many other traditions.
MB: Have you found resources in the Western philosophical tradition that reinforce some of the ideas that you’ve brought forth under a more Buddhist banner?
PH: This NEH project that I’m directing right now is on cultural diversity in Asia. I mention that because we’re working very hard to resist binaries – whether it’s “East and West” or “the West and the rest”. There’s something quite unproductive about those binaries; they have their own historical legacy. I’m tempted to say there isn’t a category of ‘the West’ from which I’ve had inspiration; neither would I say that there’s the opposing category of ‘the East’ or ‘the Buddhist’.
I’m engaged in different kinds of practices, and some of those are purely intellectual practices, like the ones in which I was studying so-called Western philosophies. I studied Buddhist philosophy in the same way in an academic setting, and I’ve engaged in Buddhist practice as somebody committed to going through a set of bodily, emotional and conceptual shifts in an effort to break through and move obliquely to my own patterns and habituations. So I’ve engaged both Buddhism and Western stuff conceptually, and I’ve been relatively comfortable plundering both sets of traditions—if I could put it that way—for ideas and vocabularies that are useful and that seem to enable me to articulate some of the insights I’ve gleaned through these practices.
I’ve found real value in things like postmodern thought, particularly in its insistence on the ethical centrality of difference that you might get out of people like Levinas or Derrida or Deleuze or Jean-Luc Nancy. When I say “shared flourishing,” I’m really playing with Nancy’s notion of the shared; it’s a great distinction between the common and the shared, just like the distinction between finite and infinite games. Same as the distinction between the kusala and the akusala – it’s a great distinction, because it frustrates our natural tendency to pair things up as opposites.
It works from a Buddhist standpoint because it goes back to early Buddhist teachings that the basic source of suffering is setting things up in pairs of opposites. So the basic Buddhist practice is to avoid doing that. Instead of setting up oppositions, try working with oblique contrasts. So early Buddhist thinkers tended not to talk about the contrast between truth and falsehood, pitting the true against what’s not true. Instead, they drew a contrast between truth and confusion. That’s oblique. It’s not an opposite; it’s something else. When you do that oblique move, something opens up.
I like these kinds of contrasts, whether they’re found within the ‘Buddhist’ context or the ‘Western’ one. It’s natural in a highly pluralistic environment like the ones that we all live in nowadays to do that. To do it effectively is another thing; to do it responsibly is another thing. Would I say that have I appropriated postmodern French philosophy in my work on Buddhism? I would not go that far. But I’ve read enough to know that there are some great ideas there that could be made use of, that could be aligned appropriately with the way in which I would like to see relational dynamics being inflected.
I think that we could do the same thing by making use of Buddhist concepts or Confucian ones, Taoist ones or Hindu ones, Muslim ones, first people’s ones – of taking ideas, oblique contrasts, concepts, and practices that are a part of other traditions and making use of them. The danger is that you end up with a grab bag of stuff that doesn’t connect together. And that’s where the suggestion that I made earlier fits in – that maybe there are reasons for going back to something like Buddhist practice, to make sure that you develop the full set of capacities that are involved in moving forward with this. Because, on the one hand, we could say resolving the predicaments of the 21st century requires us to appreciate a wide range of value systems and cultural systems that we now know to be important and alive and well on the planet. It’s a huge variety of stuff that can potentially be brought into the mix, and the challenge is doing that responsibly and not being exclusive about it.
But if you don’t do it in a way that’s systematic, then you run the risk of it just being like a shopping mall approach that years ago led Chögyam Trungpa to coin the term “spiritual materialism.” You take a little from here, pick a little from there, and you put it all together to get something unique and contemporary but that doesn’t really work and isn’t sustainable. We don’t want to create critical chimera – an imaginary creature that even if you could stitch one together, it wouldn’t be able to reproduce. It might be a one-generation knockoff that looks kind of cool and different in response to some unusual situation, but it’s basically a monster. It’s not going to flourish. So we don’t want to create conceptual chimera. We don’t want to just paste things together.
That’s where I would say that we need to be concerned about the resistance – within postmodern thinking and elsewhere – to hierarchical orderings of knowledge or systems. For all its obvious historical precedents, there’s a danger in that resistance. The human body is hierarchically organized after all. You can get rid of a hand or a finger, but you can’t get rid of the brain – you’re done for. There’s a hierarchy organically. Hierarchies are not all pernicious. Hierarchies enable us to share. If there’s no difference between us, if we really do have the same, exact endowments, we have no purpose in engaging one another. Admitting that there are significant differences among us, from a Buddhist perspective, means there is something to learn from each other, something from which we can benefit by opening ourselves to our differences and not just tolerating them.
For example, Buddhism historically has not been convincing in its demonstration of an ability to institutionally realize gender equality. At a spiritual level, fine. At the level of doctrinal comments on gender and the importance of gender in religious or spiritual practice and attainment, fine. Institutionally, Buddhism has had a pretty bad record. So there’s something to be learned from modern so-called Western systems about equality. But there’s also this idea that you have to maintain differences for there to be grounds for mutual contribution.
MB: To the extent that you describe the values underlying your work in Buddhist terms, do you worry that doing so might make your work less approachable or accessible to an American audience, one that as a whole isn’t super-familiar with Buddhism?
PH: I began writing my new book – Valuing Diversity – as one in which I would not make reference to Buddhism or other Asian traditions. I started writing it, and by the time I’d written a couple of hundred pages, I felt I was just being crippled intellectually. There were so many things that I couldn’t refer to or make use of without, at least at a certain level, explicitly bringing a Buddhist or Confucian perspective into it. I felt as if I wasn’t able to move forward.
It would be a little bit like someone from Asia trying to talk about democracy without ever bringing in anything about the history of the concept of democracy or democratic institutions in the West. It would be pretty hard to do that. It’s not that you couldn’t do it, but, boy, you’d have to work really hard to get your points across.
At a certain point, I just thought, “Well, the kinds of resources that I’m going to draw on and the examples that I’ll use might not be familiar to people, so the burden is on me, as an author, to offer them in a way that makes it as easy for the intended reader to digest as I possibly can.”
I think it ends up being a stronger book in the sense that it talks about – and in some degree demonstrates – what I’m talking about. There’s a conceptual diversity within the book itself. It doesn’t just have the Western perspective; it’s got multiple perspectives from both Asia and the West. That wasn’t my original inclination, but it was personal shortcomings that got me to move in that direction.
MB: Would you mind telling me a bit about the faculty development work you do?
PH: The programs that we run here are part of a joint project of the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii; it’s called the Asian Studies Development Program. Its mission is to enhance teaching and learning in higher education about Asian culture and societies. So we get money from different funding sources, like the National Endowment for the Humanities, US Department of Education Title VI grants, and private foundations both in the US and abroad.
I put together summer institute programs for college/university professors who are committed to including Asian Studies in their teaching. They come out here and spend anywhere from two to five weeks. We put together a short, multidisciplinary academic course for them. Typically, it would involve one lecture per day, sometimes two, a film series, site visits to museums, and discussions, with the whole point being to excite them about content related to Asian cultures and societies. Typically, we do philosophy, religion, and intellectual history in the first couple of weeks, then arts, literature and contemporary issues at the end.
We also do field seminars in Asia on which we’ll take groups of 12 to 15 faculty members and travel with them in China, Japan, or Southeast Asia. We also do workshops on the US mainland.
It’s all related to putting Asian Studies into the core undergraduate curriculum. Rather than ghettoizing Asian Studies, it’s a commitment to insuring that every student who is getting a four-year degree or a two-year degree in community college should be exposed to significant content on Asia.
MB: How much of this work serves as a channel for you to expose faculty to your ideas about what education’s goals ought to be?
PH: It sort of runs the gamut. If I had taken the typical approach after getting my Ph.D. and gotten a job teaching philosophy or religious studies somewhere, it’s very likely I would not have made the turn to do the kind of work that I’ve done, at least two-thirds of which tries to make use of Buddhist concepts to look at contemporary issues.
Some of it has been serendipitous. But I also have a chance to try ideas out on these faculty groups—they’re captive audiences after all!—and develop perspectives that might be more useful outside the academy. If I can do it in a vocabulary and approach that’s useful for them and that they believe will be useful for their students, probably it’s going to work okay if I write that stuff up and publish it for a general audience. I think there’s interplay between the two.